Studio Conversation I is one of several portraits set in John Wonnacott's studio in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, which overlooks the Thames estuary. The central image is that of the artist reflected in a mirror, which occupies the place on the easel that would normally be taken by the canvas. The cloud-like form at the top of the mirror represents the accretion over time of pieces of masking tape, used to secure the mirror to the easel.
The other figures in the painting are friends of the artist: the painter and art teacher, Ian Cox, seen to the left, in a striped shirt; the mathematician, Bernard Neumann, seen to the right, in checked shirt. Both live locally to Wonnacott and have been painted by him before. Also visible is the artist's wife, who is seen, reflected in the mirror, through glazed doors leading to the room 'behind' painter and viewer.
Wonnacott arranged the relative positions in the room so that he was the same distance in front of the mirror as the figures of his two friends were beyond it. Thus the three figures, though located in reality on a triangular plane, are seen as if in line. The mirror itself was painted life-size, which accounts for the strikingly large scale of the objects resting between it and the viewer. The images of the two friends were painted from photographs and from drawings done quickly from life while the friends held the difficult poses.
The painting uses images reflected in two mirrors (there is a second mirror on the farther easel) and in the glass of the windows. It exemplifies Wonnacott's interest in representing both substantial and insubstantial, that is to say reflected, imagery in such a way that the two kinds of reality fuse in the finished work.
In his studio interiors, the use of reflections is one of Wonnacott's means of enhancing the viewer's awareness of spatial complexity. Horizontally, the eye is drawn on an extended journey from the room 'behind' to the street lights on the right, which are perceived as reflections in the window on the left. Though the room is relatively small, it is opened up in the painting by the large expanses of ceiling and floor. The viewer's attention is intended, in Wonnacott's words, to 'ricochet' around the space: from near to distant wine glasses, for example, and from a real light source to the many reflected ones.
When work began on Studio Conversation I all three figures were seated conventionally. But as work progressed Wonnacott decided to develop the 'zig-zag' movement he found to be latent in the painting. In part this was a result of his renewed interest in the work of such sixteenth century artists as Michelangelo, Tintoretto and El Greco, who had presented the human form in striking attitudes. Wonnacott has described this aspect of the painting as a 'Mannerist twist'.
John Wonnacott, exhibition catalogue, Agnew's and Hirschl & Adler Galleries, London and New York 1996, reproduced p.2, fig.4
Recent Paintings John Wonnacott, exhibition catalogue, Agnew's, London 1996